Community Colleges for the Students They Actually Have

October 14, 2012

In the United States, we think of elementary and secondary education as fundamentally different from higher education. The first two levels are where students are expected to learn the building blocks for lifelong learning, while college is meant to confer higher-order thinking and more-specialized skills.


How we treat students flows directly from the difference in these sets of expectations. Before college, students generally are provided with schedules for prescribed classes, where they end up doing more learning inside than outside the classroom. College students, by contrast, are expected to be far more independent, to figure out which classes to take and then do most of their course-related work outside the classroom.

How to overhaul academe

Read more | Send us your ideas

For most of the roughly seven million students seeking degrees at community colleges, though, this construct makes little sense. They have often not mastered the building blocks: Up to two-thirds of community-college students need remedial education.

Even though they are often the first in their families to go to college, community-college students receive scant support or advice for navigating course choices. And most of them have jobs, leaving less time for homework. The result: Fewer than 40 percent of those who attend full time go on to graduate or transfer within three years.

But what if community colleges were organized to achieve success for the students they have, not for students like those who attend four-year residential colleges? First, such a re-envisioned community college would offer far greater numbers of block-scheduled programs. Rather than selecting courses, most students would be directed to enter comprehensive programs built around specific degree goals and schedules.

Up to two-thirds of community-college students need remedial education.

So students would choose (1) a program such as an associate of science or arts aimed at eventually transferring to a four-year institution or a vocational program like welding; and (2) a block of time to attend full or part time (mornings, full days, or evenings/weekends). Blocks would include homework time, when students would practice what they learn with the help of tutors and technology rather than squeezing it between class and work.

This system would also be geared to serve students who begin in remedial education, to allow them to see the length of time and the cost associated with various degree and certificate options. Instead of the uncertainty of many years of semester-by-semester course selection and scheduling, students would know that if they showed up and did their work well, they would earn a degree in a specific period of time.

The community colleges, too, would benefit. Once students began programs, colleges could plan to staff the specific number of courses in each block through the end of that program. At the beginning of each semester, only entering students would make choices, so community colleges would have greater clarity—well before the year began—about what courses and professors would be needed for returning students.

A second important change would affect what happens in the classroom. A central operating theory in elementary and secondary reform is that the most important variable that schools can directly influence to improve learning is the quality of teaching in the classroom. There is every reason to believe the same is true in community colleges.

Re-envisioned, community colleges would focus their hiring, professional development, and tenure systems on a single goal: improved teaching and learning. Professors would be hired solely for their teaching ability and willingness to continually improve their craft. They would be expected to improve their teaching in measurable ways and would be given consistent on-the-job support to help make that happen.

They would be given time to compare the progress of their students with that of students under other professors, and to engage in conversations, observations, and practices that would enable each of them to emulate what others have shown works in the classroom. Struggling professors would be given personalized support and coaching until their students received what every student deserves: outstanding teaching.

That is exactly what has been done in high-performing elementary and high schools. These innovations—structured programs and rigorous systems of tenure and support for improved teaching—are already happening at some excellent community colleges in the United States as well.

Now more community colleges must follow suit if they are to meet the vital goal of significantly increasing the success of their diverse student bodies.

Josh Wyner is executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute in Washington.